Leading the West up the Garden Path?


Napoleon was defeated not just by the Russian winter. More crucial in the scales was the toughness of the Russian soldier. At the Battle of Borodino on the road to Moscow the Russian army was more than a match for the Grand Army. While the Russians pulled back, the French suffered very heavy casualties.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is also centred on that campaign but the picture we get from this great novel, amongst the greatest ever written, is of fate and the workings of history bringing about Napoleon’s defeat. The Russian soldier misses out on the credits. Correcting this impression is one of the best books in English about that campaign, Dominic Lieven’s Russia against Napoleon, beautifully written and extraordinary in its sweep.

To understand what President Putin is doing in Crimea, and the way he has responded to the west, it is instructive to recall not only Napoleon but a century and a half later Hitler’s defeat by the Red Army. If defeat in Russia had not come about, the Normandy landings could not have taken place.

Russia was always a great power, a country which mattered on the European stage. But through first the Bolshevik Revolution and then the ordeal of Stalinism, and then the ordeal of the Second World War, the Soviet Union as it was then known became a world power, far behind the United States economically but on a par with it militarily.

The post-war division of Europe, and the coming down of what Churchill memorably called the Iron Curtain, was not to the west’s liking. But it could do nothing about it because Stalin’s armies physically redrew the map of Europe. Thus it remained for four and a half decades – 1945 to 1989, the world dominated by two superpowers, the US and the USSR.

I was in our embassy in Moscow in the mid-seventies when the US had just gone through the Watergate scandal leading to Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford succeeding him as president. The Russians had their own problems but because of Watergate and the US defeat in Vietnam, the US was gripped by angst and a measure of self-doubt. The Soviet Union looked powerful. When Andrei Gromyko, Soviet foreign minister since 1957, spoke the west listened.

Then came the catastrophe (for the USSR at least) of Mikhail Gorbachev who through one misstep after another went about unravelling the Soviet Union and its control over Eastern Europe. All this could have been done in a more subtle manner but Gorbachev destroyed the power of the Communist Party, the one thing holding the Soviet Union together, weakening the moorings of the state Lenin had founded.

Americans credit Ronald Reagan for winning the Cold War and seeing to the demise of the Soviet Union and the coming down of the Berlin Wall. This is a misreading of history. The man who won the Cold War for the west was Gorbachev. This was a victory handed to the other side on a silver platter, the US, let alone the Soviet Union, scarcely able to make sense of the cataclysm taking place – at breakneck speed too.

Belatedly the Communist Party tried to rouse itself and with help from elements in the armed forces tried to mount a coup d’etat in August 1991. But with no leadership and hearts not really in the enterprise, it was a fiasco. Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, its constituent republics breaking away.

Worse was to follow for in Gorbachev’s place came someone who looked solid enough at the time but soon turned out to be a vodka-swilling buffoon. Once on his way back from the United States Yeltsin had to come for a state visit to Ireland. His plane landed at Dublin airport but the Russian president couldn’t step out. When all efforts to make him look presentable failed the plane took off for Moscow. Our own Yahya was better. On a visit to Nepal his plane had to circle around Kathmandu airport before he was in a fit state to be received by his hosts. But unlike Yeltsin, he made it.

The greatest privatisation in history soon took place, state assets stripped away and sold to cronies and favoured oligarchs (actually they became oligarchs thereafter) sometimes for a song. The Russian billionaires on the world stage we see today are all products of that loot sale. Russia seemed in terminal decline and the west, especially the US, stopped taking it seriously. The European Union expanded and opened its doors to former Soviet bloc countries. This wasn’t all. NATO pushed itself eastward and Russia was helpless.

Russian decline was too far gone but the man to arrest it and return Russia to some semblance – if yet only a semblance – of its former self is Putin. It has been a long haul but only now first in Syria and then in the Crimean crisis are we seeing Russia getting back to conducting itself like a great power.

In Syria the Russians drew a line, and three things helped them: the al-Assad regime’s tenacity and resilience; Iran; and Hezbollah. The Crimea is the second issue on which the west has been thwarted.

The west was mistaken if it thought that the land of the Tsars, land of fearsome Stalin, its history rich with memories of defeating Napoleon and Hitler, could be pushed into a corner forever. History doesn’t happen like that. China was a basket case if not worse just 65 years ago. Then came the revolution with all its pain and sacrifice and Mao, standing atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic. Today it is so different.

The Germans conquered the Crimean Peninsula in the Second World War, the legendary Field Marshal Erich Manstein leading the German attack. But when the tide of war turned the Red Army got it back. The Crimea is part of Russian folklore, history, imagination. A defeatist Russia as under Yeltsin would not have lifted a finger over it. A resurgent Russia could not afford to show the same weakness. Putin is on strong ground. It is not he who has miscalculated. The miscalculation is all on the other side.

The unipolar world in which the US was the sole hyper-power – a word reeking of arrogance – was a brief moment in the long span of history. Even while it lasted it was undone by the genius of George Bush. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to American fatigue and diminished America’s standing in the world. If Al-Qaeda wanted to throw America into turmoil it could not have succeeded better. And as the US has slipped (we are talking relatively), we have seen the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia – which is good for third world countries because America post-Sep 11 had become a pain-in-the-neck.

Remember what Americans were saying then, that we write our own reality and what we do becomes the new reality. Remember also that stark warning: you are either with us or against us. Horace’s admonition comes to mind: “Brute force bereft of reason falls by its own weight.”

It is not just Putin savouring a moment of triumph. It is Russia as a whole – the Russia of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, of Pushkin and Chekov – experiencing, through the annexation of the Crimea, a moment of redemption, and of an end to the humiliation of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years when, forgetting Russian history, the west had begun to take it for granted.

-courtesy: The News International